Catholic Vancouver Nov. 3, 2017

Grief counsellor offers remedies for 'mourning-avoidant' culture

By Agnieszka Ruck

Less people attend funerals and mourn properly these days, said Dr. Alan Wolfelt. (Greg Ortega / Unsplash)

VANCOUVER—North Americans have forgotten how to mourn, according to author and grief counsellor Dr. Alan Wolfelt.

“If you don’t mourn well, you don’t live well and you don’t love well,” said Wolfelt, the author of more than 70 books, many on the topics of grief and mourning.

Canada and the U.S. are facing an “epidemic” of unhelpful clichés and a rush to get over the deaths of loved ones. But, he warns, those who never mourn “run the risk of becoming the living dead.”

North Americans are now less familiar with aging, illness, death, and grief than they have been historically. “We now live in the world's first death-free generation. You could be into your 40s or 50s, with your parents still alive, your grandparents living longer,” before experiencing a loss, he said.

So, upon the death of a loved one, people tend to try to avoid it. Bodies are buried faster, funerals have lower attendance rates (or are skipped altogether), and people just don’t wear black mourning clothes anymore.

“Right up into the late 1960s and early 70s, North Americans were familiar with the concept of melancholia. You would wear mourning clothes,” he said. “You were in the dark, and a stranger would approach you and tell you: ‘I see you have a death. Tell me about that person.’ It was appropriate for you to be sad.”

People must pause, reassess, and embrace their suffering before moving forward, said the professional counsellor. It’s something much of our culture has lost.

“Now, people give light-based messages like, ‘You have more children,’ or ‘You had 50 years’ or ‘One door closes and another door opens,’” said Wolfelt. “We forgot that darkness precedes light. You have to affirm when someone is in the dark, not drag them to the light.”

Wolfelt calls ours a mourning-avoidant, emotion-phobic culture. On tour in B.C. this November, he plans to teach families and professionals how to navigate grief.

If you mourn well, you live well and love well.
Alan Wolfelt

“For me, this is a calling,” said Wolfelt, who first encountered death when his best friend died of leukemia at age 14. “I have a penchant for helping people mourn well, because if you mourn well, you live well and love well.”

Wolfelt will give a free public seminar Tuesday, Nov. 14, at St. Patrick’s Parish in Vancouver at 7 p.m. The following day, he will lead a day-long conference for counsellors, social workers, physicians, nurses, and others at the Executive Plaza Hotel in Coquitlam. Tickets are available by contacting Kearney Funeral Services at 604-736-0268 or [email protected].